Dr. Folasade May, On Colorectal Cancer & Health Equity

It’s easy to start these stories with stats about our higher incidences of many diseases. But this time, I would rather talk about what can be done about it. In the case of colon cancer, where our risk is 20% higher, there is a nonprofit called Stand Up To Cancer. (SU2C) And when it comes to our community, they have assembled a SU2C Colorectal Cancer Health Equity Dream Team.
We spoke with Dr. Folasade May, Co-Leader of the SU2C Colorectal Cancer Health Equity Dream Team, about the importance of screenings, why we are reluctant, and how we can overcome our fears. According to Dr. May, ‘Many of the risk factors for colorectal cancer are more prevalent in black individuals. So when you talk about the use of tobacco, when you talk about overweight, obesity, diabetes, and an unfavorable diet, these are things that, unfortunately, are more common in black communities than in white communities. And that’s playing a role,” she says.
The Benefits of Screenings
However, Dr. May points out that the other factor that plays a strong role is differences in who participates in screening. “Screening can be life-saving, and for colorectal cancer, we’re very fortunate that they work in two ways. Screening can help prevent disease in the first place because when we screen, we look for polyps in the colon and take out those polyps. They don’t have a chance to transform into cancer,” she explains. “So it’s very powerful that we can prevent people from getting cancer in the first place. And the second way that screening works is that it’s a tool for early detection. So even if you didn’t benefit from screening for removing polyps, we can do screening and find cancers early enough that we can remove them, and people can be cured.”
The Idea of a Colonoscopy is Scarier Than The Actual Procedure
Overall, women are better than men at taking care of their health appointments than men. But preparing for a colonoscopy ( a day-long fast), taking the day off, and arranging to be picked up (and having your children picked up) may cause you to put the procedure off. Dr. May says if taking days off is impossible, there are alternatives, “It’s not only colonoscopy; we now have other screening tools that you can use that you can do in the comfort of your own home. These are called stool-based screening tests. You will be given an instruction kit and a safe and hygienic way to collect the sample of that stool, put it in a container, and send it to a laboratory where they test it,” she explains. And it doesn’t matter which of these you do, a colonoscopy or the stool test; the important thing is that you do it, you do it at 45, and you do it at the proper intervals. So you do some stool tests yearly, whereas colonoscopy is every 10 years.”
Colon Cancer is No Longer an Older Person’s Disease
When Dr. May began researching colon cancer, she was told it was more prevalent among older adults in their 60s and 70s. However, that is no longer the case. “Right now, we are seeing colorectal cancer and people in their 30s. And in their 40s and 50s. It’s what we call early-onset colorectal cancer,” she says. “So we’re seeing a drop in cases because screening is working in people under 50; we’re seeing a rise, and that’s across the board by ethnicity and race. So we have this epidemic now that we call early-onset colorectal cancer, and we’re trying to raise awareness, not only in black individuals who are high risk but also in young individuals who need to know that we’ve dropped the screening age to 45 and that they are at risk now. It’s no longer an old person’s disease.”
Note: If you have severe abdominal pain, gut issues, constipation, or weight loss, see your doctor even if you are a young person
How Do We Prevent Colon Cancer
Dr. May points out that one way to prevent colon cancer is to focus on keeping people healthy. One way to do this is to start by teaching children and teens good habits they can carry into their twenties.
Other recommendations include:

Eliminate tobacco
Minimize alcohol consumption (particularly binge alcohol drinking)
Stay physically active (cardio and strength training)
limit processed food (especially processed meat)
Limit red meat
Eat more fiber
Monitor Calcium and Vitamin D levels

Stand Up To Cancer has funded colorectal cancer research and has Health Equity screening sites in Boston, Los Angeles, and Tribal Nations in South Dakota to support the underserved needs of our communities. To learn more, click here.

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